Add to Technorati Favorites Janette Griffiths: December 2009

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Balzac's fan-mail and must authors be nice guys?

A couple of years ago I attended a talk on letters to Balzac at his house in Paris. During his debt-ridden, workaholic, turbulent life, Balzac received thousands of fan letters -mainly from women. They were, it seems, thrilled and consoled to find in the lusty, shambolic, fat, French bulldog of a man that was Honore de Balzac, someone who understood them, who spoke of their daily lives and the loneliness and frustration of being a woman in 19th century France. Nobody had ever done that before. Polite society required that they put a brave face on their solitude. But Balzac, like all good novelists, had no time for masks. He wrote the painful truth and in expressing that pain, as in all good art, he helped to alleviate it. In another time and another place, Jacques Brel, the great Belgian singer/songwriter would shrug and say of songs like "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and "Amsterdam", "I'm an aspirin."

Did Balzac respond to all those letters? Did he 'interact' with his readers? Fret about his public image? No. He hurtled on - a great force of nature doing what he had to do. Just as Beethoven had hurtled on decades earlier doing what he had to do. HE would certainly have been seen as a 'jerk' by the general public. And no, I'm not leaving the women out. Did Virginia Woolf worry about building a platform? Did she spend hours each day building her image? No. She wrote and wrote and wrote.

And years later a reader in Des Moines or Bangalore can pick up one of her books and , as Alan Bennett said in "The History Boys", sense that "a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you here... set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

Those hands can reach out from anywhere at any time. Just this morning an author as contemporary as Douglas Coupland reached out across the bay in Vancouver to talk to me about 21st century loneliness in his novel, Eleanor Rigby.

But, if a writer's hands are tied up with building his image or signing in to post grovelling comments on agents' and publishers' websites, they will have strayed so far away from the truth of what it is to be human and their duty to share that truth with us, that their worth as a writer will be forever lost.